The first ascent, in climbing circles, is near the top of the list of goals that climbers strive for. To define the term, it means to be the first person to climb a particular route successfully with no falls. Inherent in climbing is a thrill of going places where no man has ever gone before, and with fewer and fewer places left untouched in the world today, the steep cliffsides often present a worthy frontier previously inaccessible by mankind. Establishing a decent route for others to climb afterward also leaves a legacy any climber can be proud of. For some, there is a notable prestige in having one's name emblazoned on the pages of guidebooks, and over time recognized sometimes worldwide for the quantity and quality of routes attributed to it.
Historically first ascents have often had stories attached that would rival the dramas of the top adventure movies, and indeed some of them have made it to the silver screen. Joe Simpson's documentary and book telling of his near-death on the first ascent of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes has both climbers and non climbers alike trembling on the edge of their seats with sweaty palms, and is all the more awe-inspiring due to the simple fact that it actually happened. Others, such as Warren Harding and co.'s first ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite which took 47 days and stretched the three-man party's limits of food and water hit the headlines of newspapers across the country. Still more climbers have passionate stories to tell of the months of effort they poured into establishing a new route only to have the first ascent stolen from under their fingertips by a rival, or even worse, a friend! The excitement and drama of pushing limits and doing what has never been done is certainly one strong attraction for climbers.
In addition to these alluring attributes, a first ascent by nature presents a climber with a problem of unknown proportions which may or may not have a solution at all. Standing at the base of an unclimbed wall, they are given only what information or "beta" they can read with their eyes or simply guess from experience, and every step upward from that point is an opportunity for surprise, obstacles, innovation, creativity, and utilization of the strength of both body and mind. There is no line of previously placed bolts to follow, no guidebook or "topo" to ease the mind's worries about the route's difficulty, and no anchors to bail from should things get scary. It is a game with the simplest of rules pitting the climber's skills and experience against their own limits.
With all this in mind, it was with no slight hesitation, and a pair of raised eyebrows that I greeted Chad Gailey's proposal that we leave our topos in the tent and go find something that hasn't ever been climbed for a bit of adventure today. It was mid summer in 2004, an unusually dry and sunny summer for my favorite stomping grounds in Hatcher Pass, Alaska. I was seventeen, just finished with high school and spending the prime years of my life in pursuits of a mountainous nature rather than getting a job, a girlfriend, or further education like most of my friends. Chad had come into the mountains during a few days away from work to find my campsite and rope up on some climbs, and after working two walls clean of routes within our skill range, he suggested moving on to a new wall; one that wasn't on any of the guides of local climbing, and about which we had no information whatsoever. Chad wanted to try our hands at a first ascent.
Now neither of us had ever left the known terrain of established routes before, but looking at the route he wanted to try from camp, I could only agree that it had great potential. It followed an ordinary looking slab to skirt around a roof of enormous size for almost a full ropelength (200 feet), and then veered straight up a perpendicular face of granite following a crack system which was obvious even from the valley floor, finally ending at the very top of the highest wall in the area. We didn't know how hard it would be, how much gear it would take, or anything about the route at all except that it looked beautiful, but always open to new adventures, we shouldered our gear and hiked to the base.
Chad took the first lead, heading out up a dirty slab covered in flakes of lichen and moss which cascaded free of the granite with his every movement. Every so often he paused to dig a crack free of dirt using his nut tool - a slender hook designed for getting gear out of cracks, but also handy for what climbers refer to as "gardening" - and maneuver a piece of protection into place to catch him in the event of a fall, and then clipping the rope behind him he moved upward. Eventually rounding an abutment of granite he disappeared from my sight, but a continuous shower of dirt, plants, and small rocks told me he was still making progress above me. As the halfway point on my rope moved into my hands marking the perfect length for a single pitch of climbing, he yelled down that he had found an anchor and was ready to belay me up. His anchor though, he said, was a bit sketchy, so I should try not to fall, implying the possibility that to do so might take us both to the bottom of the cliff in a shower of boulders. Some words that really should only be said in jest have been repeated to me all too many times!
Only slightly perturbed, however, and with my spirit of adventure still beating strong, I set out after Chad and followed a mediocre pitch of easy climbing on a dirty and fairly low angle slab. Moves flew by as I cleaned Chad's gear and eventually found myself eying the very rock he had attached us to. A glance around us proved that indeed, this was the only place to anchor, but what an anchor! The crack Chad had managed to slip some gear into was formed between the main body of the granite cliffside and a huge elongated splinter of rock standing somehow on end, the size of a tree trunk at its base and tapering to a sharp point some twenty feet above. Upon examining the base we weren't sure exactly what was keeping it attached to the wall, and it looked as though if we climbed up into the gap and gave a strong shove, the whole thing might just teeter off into space. Chad grinned. So did I. This was adventure!
I set off leading the second pitch, which turned out to be much like the first. Protection placements were relatively few and far between, but the climbing was easy and straightforward, and I soon found myself at the base of the crack system we had eyed from camp nearly a mile away and far below us. This, we knew, was the reason for this route to exist. If the climbing on this pitch turned out to be as good as it looked from below, we would not only thoroughly enjoy ourselves today, but our route would eventually be a classic for countless others to climb in the future. Measuring the length of the crack above with my eye I determined that rather than stop here and belay Chad up to my position, I would just climb the full length of the rope and belay him up from the top of the crack high above. With that plan set in my head and eager anticipation of the unknown climbing I was about to encounter keeping my spirits high, I deciphered the first few moves to get off the slab and pulled myself up into the crack.
Words can with difficulty describe the next few minutes for me. I knew that where I was climbing, nobody had ever gone before; but the reason I knew this was the decades of growth of lichen and moss which filled the crack almost to overflowing. The rock was solid, the moves were beautiful, but until this point in my life I had only climbed established routes, and while some of them may have been dirty and mildly coated with lichen, nothing compared to the experience I was faced with. Every hand jammed in the crack slipped out several times before enough lichen crumbled away to leave the rough crystals of granite exposed. The back of the crack, which alone could offer me hope of placements for protection as I moved higher, was packed full of moss and dirt left entirely unmolested since the day this crack first saw daylight. Several times I made attempts at cleaning enough mossy dirt out to slip in a piece of protection, hanging from a sweaty hand jammed deep in the rolling flakes of lichen dust which now covered me from head to toe and digging at the back of the crack with my nut tool. My attempts were largely unsuccessful though, and it only took a few minutes for me to start feeling the fatigue of my efforts.
A short distance above the granite slab the crack diverged into two smaller cracks traveling almost parallel straight upwards and trending slightly apart with distance gained. I found the climbing a bit less difficult here, and with a hand and foot jammed in either crack I moved higher and higher, but still couldn't find enough placements for comfort. Soaked in sweat now, I dragged chunks of soggy soil from the crack above me where it cascaded over my body, sticking to my skin and lodging in my eyes to provide further distraction. Looking down I could see I had climbed about fifty feet above the low angled slab, and the only two pieces of protection I had managed to wiggle into solid positions were more than half that distance below me. It doesn't take an experienced climber to do the math and figure out that in my situation if I were to fall, my rope and protection would only prevent my severely broken self from going all the way down to the valley floor below after a very hard bounce and a bit of tumbling on the solid granite of the slab I had just climbed. A glance above confirmed that I still knew nothing of the difficulty of the climbing I faced ahead of me, and I shifted from one stance to another as I weighed my options.
Option one was to boldly cast aside any doubts as to my ability to climb this route and push onward to the top, sure that I would find more placements for protection as I got higher. Option two was to chicken out and turn back with my tail between my legs and try to find a way – ANY way – out of this situation. A growing fear shook my entire body as I leaned far to my left and delicately slipped a nut into a shallow position backed by moss and sided by the lichen-coated sides of the crack which, far from constricting to a nice placement for my nut to wedge into, flared into a widened opening leaving only the two inside edges of the piece in contact with the rock. I couldn't get a grip on my nerves enough to compose myself, and with the danger below and the unknown above burdening my racing mind, I was slowly degenerating into a weak and shaking mess, clinging to a cliff face several hundred feet above the ground. For the first time in my life I tasted my fear, a strong bitter taste in my dry mouth that persisted for the duration of the day.
I gave it one last go at reaching the top, climbing above my sketchy placement until my left-hand crack ran out into nothingness and I was left with only one solid source of security to move onward. At this point all my boldness left me and as I turned back and downclimbed slowly until I was level with the nut I had just placed. I had no reservations to retreat and no shame for finding myself lacking for the task at hand. I had pushed myself beyond my own limits, and raised the bar on my body and mind to a new level, but I still wasn't out of the woods yet.
No climber in the world will recommend to another that a single piece of gear makes a solid enough anchor to lower off of. The first two key components of anchor building are solidity and redundancy, and my single shallowly placed nut exhibited neither. This thought weighed heavily on my mind as I headed downward, but in my overwhelming state of fear I had no desire to weaken myself any further while fiddling around trying to get another piece of gear in. I eyed the piece as I passed it, and then saying a quiet prayer, I weighted it and half slid, half lowered down the vertical face, barely breathing again until my feet were once more on the solid security of the slab below. I was finally safe, but still I wanted nothing more than to be off that wall, relaxing in camp while soup boiled on the stove. I downclimbed back to Chad, and after a few attempts on his part to reach the top of the wall, we turned back and I finally breathed a sigh of relief as we reached the ground and the enormous stress was finally eased. We called it a day and headed for our tent, with the bitter taste of fear still strong in my mouth.
Of course a climb left unfinished can be just as terrible for a climber to contemplate as the impassible pressures of danger and difficulty, and in the days, weeks, and eventually years that followed our attempt I vowed that I would go back and finish this route. I knew that the difficulty of the climbing could not be out of my skill level, and that it was only a matter of finding better protection and having a more solid grasp on my mental game, and the route would be finished. Chad and I could never match schedules though, so after a few years passed, it was decided that the route ought to be finished even if it wasn't the two of us together who managed the task. Moss grows on the faded and weathered knot that my own hands tied five years before.
And so the summer of 2009 found me and my wife Tracy hiking back into Reed Valley to rendezvous with Kelsey Gray and Dane Ketner. Kelsey was gathering information on climbs in the area for addition to the guidebook he had authored, and he and Dane had spent a night and a day on the rocks already when we arrived. Our plan was to rappel this route and clean the crack to enable safe gear placements, and then to lead it again from the ground up to finally establish the first ascent. This much was accomplished without event, and after five years of this route weighing heavily on my mind I was overjoyed, working through the moderate moves of the beautiful crack looming high over the milky blue waters of a giant lake and offering climbing easily as excellent as Chad and I had thought on our first investigation from far below. Finally my first attempt at a first ascent had become a reality, and while I had accumulated several to my record by this time, finishing this route after so long a period of frustration was a high point in my life of climbing. Reaching the top, we called the route "Rise" and gave its three and a half pitches a modest difficulty rating of 5.9.
As the sun dropped over the peaks, we fixed our lines and rappelled directly down the massive overhanging roof at the base of the wall. Lowering slowly toward the ground, our eyes scoured the blank sections of impossibly steep granite before us, searching for anything resembling holds and cracks that would take protection. The potential for amazing routes was obvious, but the difficulty of those routes presented itself strongly as well. Would we ever be up to the task of ascending that unknown terrain and becoming the first to top out above this untouched granite? Only time will tell.